Late last summer, I had an interesting conversation with Brad Freeman, a top California Republican who is today one of three co-chairs of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, overseeing the raising of a whopping $40 million in private contributions from top corporations and lobbyists for this week’s events. Freeman, whose private investment company made him rich, is so close to the Bush family that when they moved into the White House in 2001, they gave him their pet cat, Ernie, because they feared his claws would tear up the rugs.

One morning during the Republican National Convention in New York, I reached Freeman in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. How did I know where to find him? The day before, I had taken a stroll through the skyboxes high above Madison Square Garden as they were being prepared for the evening festivities, and found a copy of Freeman’s personal schedule for the week that his female companion had apparently left lying on a table.

Freeman and his companion were attending every top-shelf event occurring during the convention–“Apple Martinis” with Representative David Dreier, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, at Bowlmor Lanes (an establishment that we now know was quietly propped up by a Palestinian Authority investment fund controlled by Yasir Arafat) ; legal lobbying powerhouse Akin Gump’s event honoring Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman at Bryant Park Grill; a tribute to First Lady Laura Bush at the Marriott Marquis; Senator John and Cindy McCain’s bash for the media at Cipriani.

Not only that, his schedule listed several events that had been left off the RNC’s thirty-two-page master calendar, including a special reception at the Four Seasons with former President Bush for “Rangers, Pioneers & Mavericks” (fundraisers who respectively bundled $200,000, $100,000 or $50,000 in individual donations to the Bush campaign). A page of “miscellaneous information” included personal cell-phone numbers for Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, Benjamin Ginsberg (a top election lawyer working for the Bush campaign whose advisory work for the Swift Boat Veterans led him to resign from the campaign) and a host of campaign fundraising honchos.

As I had just written, with my colleague Nancy Watzman, a book called Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day, this discovery was pure serendipity. Finally, after documenting all the ways wealthy special interests cash in on lucrative favors from Washington, DC, here was an unrestricted peak at life at the very top of the fundraising pyramid.

Just one-tenth of 1 percent of all Americans gave the maximum individual contribution of $2,000 to a candidate in 2004, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. An even tinier group, a little over 1,000 men and a handful of women, were the super-bundlers for the major presidential candidates of both parties.

Freeman was the top man of one of those power pyramids, having managed Bush’s California money machine in 2000 and 2004. His traveling partners for the Republican National Convention, with whom he was sharing a private jet back to Van Nuys (“Wheels Up from Teterboro, Friday 9:00 am” his schedule read), included Gerald Parsky, an investment banker who has given, with his wife, more than $500,000 to federal candidates since 1999; and Bob Tuttle, an auto dealer who has given more than $135,000 (plus an equivalent amount to California Republicans). If anyone knew how big money worked in politics, it was Brad Freeman.

After introducing myself on the phone, I told him that I had his schedule for the week and asked if he would mind talking to me about the fundraising process. “Oh my god!” he blurted out. Then he quickly regained his equilibrium. “The average gift is a lot lower than you think,” he asserted. This comment tracked with something he had earlier said to a reporter: “People talk about special interests. How can you have special interests when you have 170,000 donors?”

I forged ahead, telling him that while the Bush campaign might have many small givers, their impact on its bottom line was modest compared with the $2,000 check-writers, who accounted for half their $300 million-plus raised. Don’t people who give larger sums get more access? “Sure,” he said. “I’m sure that at any political thing the leadership who hasn’t done as much doesn’t get as much.” Charmed by his obliqueness–“doing” and “getting” as euphemisms for fundraising and boondoggling–I told him the name of my book. He laughed. “That’s a clever name,” he said.

But then he tried to get back to the moral high ground, knowing how all this looked. “The irony is that I’ve never asked the President for anything.” This, too, was a line he had used before with the press. And it was fascinating to discover that Freeman had a guilty conscience. But even if the line was true (and I doubt it, given that his brother was made Ambassador to Belize by Bush), it was only half the story. What about all the people you call, asking them to contribute–don’t they ask for things? “They do,” he admitted, adding with studied understatement, “During the course of things, you get to know people and that helps.”

Wouldn’t you, dear reader, like to “get to know people”? Here’s how it’s working this week in Washington: For a mere $250,000, you could get two tickets to a private lunch with President Bush and Vice President Cheney during the inaugural, twenty tickets to a candlelight dinner where both men will stop in and invitations to nearly all the official inaugural balls. The price of access has gone up since President Clinton charged $25,000 for coffee, $50,000 for lunch and $100,000 for the Lincoln Bedroom bed-and-breakfast package.

Whom do you call, I asked Freeman. “Anybody I can.” How much have you raised? “I’m sure I’ll get a tally at the end,” he responded laconically. He wasn’t revealing anything further. I tried one last tack. “Given that only one-tenth of 1 percent of the population makes a $2,000 contribution, is this really a good system?”

Freeman revealed a bit of fundraiser fatigue in response. If it were up to him, he’d take a page from the Europeans. “They have a six-week campaign in Europe and that’s it, as opposed to four years here.”

It was a strangely hollow complaint. As best as I could tell, the only thing that bothered Brad Freeman about the money chase was how long it goes on, not what harm it does to our elected officials, or how it undermines the public’s faith in being fairly represented.

And yet, even Brad Freeman, Bush fundraiser extraordinaire, seems to know that there is something dangerously rotten about the work he does so well.